Schmeling said decision to disclose his orientation to bishop was issue of conscience, integrity
ATLANTA Keep quiet about his gay relationship or keep his promise to the church leadership.
That’s the choice the Rev. Bradley Schmeling faced after his relationship with his boyfriend grew into a lifelong commitment. And his decision could leave him defrocked and ousted from his Atlanta church or transform him into the latest poster pastor for gay rights.
When Schmeling became pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church six years ago, his homosexuality was no secret to the hierarchy of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He was also single then, so it didn’t pose as great a problem.
He promised Bishop Ronald Warren that, if his situation changed, he’d come forward. That promise came back to haunt him in March when Schmeling decided his relationship with his boyfriend had become a lifelong partnership.
At the church’s regional office in downtown Atlanta, Schmeling walked Warren through the history of his two-year relationship with his boyfriend.
“It was an issue of conscience and integrity,” Schmeling said. “I was fulfilling my promise to him, knowing full well the consequences.”
After he was finished, the bishop promptly asked Schmeling to resign. And Schmeling promptly refused.
This week, Warren responded by calling for a committee to review evidence, listen to witness testimony and ultimately decide whether to discipline the 43-year-old pastor.
As mainline Protestant denominations struggle over how to include gays and lesbians in their church services and on their pulpits, a more personal battle is being waged in local communities.
Lutherans Concerned, a gay rights group, estimates there are hundreds of Lutheran pastors reluctant to come out of the closet for fear of losing their jobs.
For those who choose to come out, the reaction varies by region. When a handful of pastors on the West Coast came forward, they faced no discipline.
Schmeling’s case, however, is the first in the more conservative Southern region, and a test case for the entire denomination’s tolerance, said Emily Eastwood, executive director of Lutherans Concerned.
“It would be a travesty for the church to say he can’t be a pastor because he found a life partner,” she said.
Other mainline Protestant denominations are facing tough, divisive decisions of their own.
In June, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) refused to change a church law that required clergy and lay officers to limit sex to heterosexual couples. But it also granted new leeway for local congregations to sidestep the rule and install gay ministers.
Tension over gay rights has threatened to split the Episcopal Church, following the 2003 consecration of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
And at national Protestant assemblies throughout the summer, the traditional Christian prohibition on gay sex has often dominated discussion.
As the debate trickles down, local leaders face some of the toughest decisions.
Schmeling said he and the bishop enjoyed a warm, collegial relationship.
“It was not an easy decision for him,” Schmeling said. And although Warren wouldn’t comment on the case, he wrote in an open letter that he made the decision after a “lengthy process of prayerful discernment.”
The charges begin a formal process which could take months.
To Schmeling, who plans to remain as pastor of the 345-member church until a decision is made, it also offers a chance to tell the story of his church and defend its motto: To love gracefully and welcome unconditionally.
“Our church is determined to welcome everybody and not let the issue of homosexuality divide us,” he said. “There’s far too many people who are trying to draw lines, build walls between communities. We want to be a church that breaks down those walls.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, August 18, 2006.